Ying Jiaxin, 应佳欣

Why Choose To Raise Bilingual Children?  


  There is a popular concern that exposing children to two languages will drag down children’s language development, because separating and constructing two language systems seems to be challenging. However, most simultaneous bilinguals acquire each language at the same stage of monolinguals. How can they achieve this tough task? Bilinguals’ sensitivity to prosodic cues and the faculty of using statistic method have already been demonstrated by experiments. I will combine these two facts and bring forward an excellent strategy which may contribute to bilinguals’ successful language acquisition. What advantages simultaneous acquisition can bring to children? I compare simultaneous bilinguals with their peers-monolinguals and sequential learners to study this question. By reviewing works done by scholars, I find simultaneous bilinguals tend to have higher cognitive intelligence and reach higher level in language mastery. I use Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis: ‘Language can shape thought’ to illustrate difficulty of getting second language and realizing native-like speaking. Additional advantage brought by simultaneous learning is associated with culture and identity.

1. Introduction

Nowadays, a large group of families have the possibility to raise bilingual infants. First, lots of countries are bilingual, where most people speak more than one official languages. For example, Canada’s constitution gives English and French equal status and rights in all institutions. Second, a large group of people emigrate to other countries. Approximately 3.4% of the world population lives in a country rather than their country of birth (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2016). This rate is still increasing. A great number of infants live in a place where the local language is different from their parents’ native language. Third, babies’ parents and grandparents may speak different languages and make joint efforts taking care of them. Therefore, simultaneous bilingualism is closely related to a large group of people. This topic is worth discussing.

Actually, for many years, people held negative attitudes towards simultaneous acquisition of different languages. This view started to change when Peal and Lambert showed that bilingual francophone children in Montreal outperformed monolingual children in many aspects. This discovery opened the modern era of bilingual research (Ellen Bialystok & Fergus I. M. Craik 19).

In the following parts, first, I will talk about children’s excellent language learning faculty. Then I will explore what strategies may help infants separate two language systems. In this part, my idea is based on bilingual infants’ ability of capturing prosodic cues (Gervein &Werker 1490) and using statistic method (Gopnik 79). Next, I focus on illustrating the advantages of simultaneous acquisition. I use a habituation experiment conducted by Singh (294-302) to show bilinguals’ better cognitive capacity compared with monolinguals. Then, I point out that simultaneous bilinguals do not need to face the challenge-renaming the world (Hammer.K. 208-243) faced by L2 speakers. Afterward, I will explain why simultaneous bilinguals can speak more native-like compared with L2 speakers. At last, I will show the impact of a mother tongue on identity to explain the profound significance of learning a native language. My aim is to illustrate that children are able to achieve simultaneous acquisition of two languages and bilingual learning has lots of long-term advantages. 

2. Children’s learning ability

Children have extraordinary language learning talent. Take an example of a learner who learns more slowly than most children. At 27 months, Adam could merely produce two-word utterance like get-ball. By 32 months, he could say sentences with much more complex grammatical structure, “let me get down with the boots on.” By 38 months, he could say long sentences, like “Can I put my head in the mail box so the mail man can know where I are and put me in the mailbox?” (R.L. Trask 121). Children do make progress at a fast speed.

Moreover, a study shows children know they should add an ending pronounced like ‘z’ to wugto represent plural even though they have not heard of the word (R.L. Trask 122). It indicates children’s learning process is not just imitation; they can find out rules and apply them to new cases. Furthermore, by abundant observations, almost all children will keep trying different linguistic rules until they find one corresponding to adult form. But they never try out any old rules (R.L. Trask 122), just like what children do when playing. They explore and do experiments, until they find how the world works. They are likely to go through a well-ordered stage of acquisition at their own pace. They absorb knowledge from surroundings with initiative and gradually construct linguistic systems. Children really have a gift for learning language.

Bilingual infants do not fall behind. Though bilinguals generally learn slightly less vocabularies for each language compared with monolingual peers, they have far larger overall vocabularies (Werker Janet.F 3649). Not only that, in each language, the majority of bilinguals acquire the same milestones within the normal range of monolingual development: for example, when they say first word and phrase, when they learn to use pronoun and negation (Hoff.E et.al 2).The fact shows that bilingual infants can successfully overcome the challenge of language acquisition.

3. Outstanding strategy

How can bilingual infants adapt to a dual linguistic environment so well and master two interlocking sets of regularities simultaneously? Excellent strategies to distinguish two languages are likely to be one factor. An experiment by Judit Gervain and Janet F. Werker shows that bilingual infants as young as seven months are sensitive to pitch and durational contrast in language. Frequent words are also a reliable signal. Bilingual children are able to combine word frequency with prosodic cues to separate typical word orders of two languages (Gervain and Werker 1490). This evidence indicates bilingual children’s remarkable ability of capturing linguistic features and utilizing relevant cues.

 Tamer Kushner carried out an experiment in which researchers repeatedly put one of two blocks on a machine. When the yellow block was placed, the machine lit up two out of three times. With the blue one, the machine lit up two out of six times. Given two blocks, most children chose to put the yellow one on the machine. The result supports that babies can use probabilities to figure out how the machine works. This study reveals babies’ ability of using statistics to draw conclusions (Gopnik 79).

Sensitivity to acoustic cues and statistic method may help babies find out useful linguistic rules. Babies can use these rules to separate two language systems. The process shares some similarities with scientific information processing, collecting data, estimating possibility, finding out the law of highest possibility and applying the law they discover. For instance, they may find that in one case, frequent words have high possibility being mentioned before the phrase and less frequent words have high possibility being lengthened. In another case, frequent words are more likely to appear at the end of the phrase (Gervein and Weaker 1490). Combined with other cues they find, they are able to separate two languages. Each language is tightly connected with a set of rules. Then they constantly fill in new words and rules for each system to make improvement. Statistical method may help bilinguals achieve the goal of recognizing two systems and applying corresponding regularities to different systems respectively.

4. Cognitive advantage

Though most infants have the ability to learn two languages simultaneously, doubts still exist extensively. The main concern is about interference between two languages and lower formal language proficiency consequently. In fact, a negative effect caused by interference is quite limited, only in finite domain. As pointed out by Ellen Bialystok and Fergus Craik, the only recorded evidence of bilinguals’ negative impact are smaller vocabularies and less rapid access to lexical (22). Because simultaneous bilinguals can develop executive control functions under the stimulus of interference to reduce disturbance. Their outstanding performance of switching responses after rule shifts (Kovácsand Mehler 6556-6560) and inhibiting disruptive or irrelevant messages (Bialystock, Craik, Klein, & Viswanathan 290-303) are two kinds of evidence. More importantly, the drawback can be outweighed by a range of advantages I am going to illustrate.

First, comparing simultaneous bilinguals with monolinguals, some cognitive advantages can be found. In an experiment conducted by Leher Singh and many other researchers, infants were presented with repeat presentation of a bear or a wolf. One served as habituation stimulus and one as novel stimulus. Children’s fixation time to both stimulus and attention decrement were recorded. Results show that bilingual infants can habituate to stimuli more readily and acquire stronger memory to novel stimuli compared with monolinguals (Singh 294-302), which means bilingual infants are able to encode stimulus more efficiently and have enhanced recognition memory. This evidence demonstrates bilingual children’s improved ability of processing visual information. The range of benefits is beyond the field of language.

Furthermore, the dependent variable in habituation experiment—the amount of attention decrement—can be target of many other studies. Larger decrements are associated with more advanced performance in concept formation(Lewis, Goldberg & Campbell 34), nonverbal cognitive outcomes (Miller et al. 159-170), receptive language (159-170), the Primary Scale of Intelligence (Bornstein 253-301), and so on. So, bilinguals’ larger decrement and better memory can predict their higher intelligence in many other fields. Therefore, simultaneous acquisition is able to offer children long-term cognitive advantage, making bilinguals stand out among their peers.

5. Difficulties of second language learning

Except for cognitive advantage, bilinguals do not need to bother acquiring L2 in later life. Before revealing factors that cause L2 learning difficulties, I will first compare two groups of people’s learning faculty and the process they undergo.Infants have outstanding talent in learning language. They are able to absorb knowledge actively and find out linguistic rules themselves. These help bilinguals acquire two languages simultaneously at the same stage as monolinguals.In contrast, L2 learners’ learning process is more passive and hard. They undergo the process of memorizing words and grammars mechanically. Many people also struggle with forgetting words frequently and making similar grammatical mistakes repeatedly.When getting older, distinctive linguistic faculty seems to graduate away as Lenneberg’s hypothesis states: “people’s phenomenal language learning ability remains only for the first few years of life, after which it is shut down by some genetic programming” (R.L. Trask 128).Therefore, learning language during infancy is more effortless and effective.

Word acquisition alone is not an easy task for L2 learners. Merely memorizing words is not enough, people need to internalize words and map each word onto external referents. Building relationships between words and objects or abstract concepts requires effort. Successful establishment needs continuous brain stimulus, like repeated contact with certain words. Failure of getting an accurate translation in the first language is also an obstacle. L2 learners often struggled to grasp the meaning of words which cannot be explained explicitly by the first language. Most L2 learners rely on the first language as a middle hinge. For example, many foreigners feel confused by the Chinese word “shanghuo” because the word is hard to describe by other languages. On the contrary, simultaneous bilinguals build relationships in a direct way without a transition of other languages.

  Failure to find an equivalent for every abstract concept is obvious. Actually, even for concrete objects, the associated knowledge would not be parallel according to Benjamin K.Hammer. In many cases, learning would not be as simple as “A=B” because different languages have different ways of categorization (170). For example, some languages have superordinate terms meaning “flying creature.” The term refers to any bird, bat or insect which can fly, but English has no equivalent (R.L. Trask 41). The situation is more sophisticated for artifacts due to the language communities’ specific needs. For instance, communities with an elaborate cooking culture may distinguish soup tureens (for serving), from soup bowl (for eating) and soup pots (for cooking), despite these things sharing great similarities (Hammer 171). More complexly, hyponymic relations are not often straightforward. A stretch of meaning is often divided up by overlapping pieces. For example, three English words ‘route, street and way’ cover the same territory as five French words, ‘route, rue, chemin, voie and chaussee’ (R.L. Trask 46). None of English words exactly match any French words.

Different languages have different naming patterns.Using first language naming pattern when speaking L2 prevents speakers from applying words to external references accurately. Advanced L2 learners are required to restructure ways in which they categorize reality (Hammer 208-243). Changing well-established habitual naming patterns and building new patterns would be really challenging. However, learning words for concrete objects is regarded as the most simple and direct learning part. Other parts like learning abstract concepts seem to be more sophisticated.  Simultaneous bilinguals do not need to suffer from renaming the world.

6. Native-like

Another advantage is that bilinguals can speak more native-like compared with L2 speakers. Many L2 speakers sound nonnative even they do not make lexical or grammatical errors. A set of experiments carried out by Hammer can help reveal the reason. Monolinguals from different language communities and L2 speakers were asked to describe short video clips. The video showed locomotion, in which the endpoint was not reached but could be inferred. For example, one of the clips was “two women walking toward a house.” From the result, speakers of languages with imperfect grammatical aspects tended to fix for shorter time on possible endpoints and include endpoints when describing, which indicates their tendency of viewing goal-oriented events as ongoing. Experiments also demonstrate that though some advanced L2 speakers partially acquire the target language view, the majority of L2 speakers still retain native perspective when speaking L2 (Hammer 76-135).

Above experiments suggest that grammar has the power to affect people’s attention toward certain aspects of a situation. This influence is illustrated in Seeing for Speaking hypothesis, as proposed by Carroll et al. (2004): when language A and language B code the same meaning by grammatical and lexical means respectively, then language B’s speakers may not attend to the relevant feature of a given scene to the same extent as language A’s speakers. Before speaking, people need to conceptualize. In this process they prepare for expressive content and organize the structure (Hammer 118-145).L2 speakers are likely to segment received information into units in a different way compared with native speakers and select different information for expression.The content L2 speakers prepare may not fit well with certain language. Or native speakers may convey messages more efficiently by utilizing well-organized grammatical frameworks. Incompatibility between conceptualization and grammatical systems pose a long-lasting challenge for L2 speakers.

Another study by Lera Boroditsky utilized the difference of language custom. English primarily describes time horizontally while Mandarin usually talks about time vertically. The study shows that Mandarin speakers tend to think about time vertically even in English language environments. Vertical bias is greater for L2 speakers who start learning English later rather than who have shorter overall learning time (1-22). This study suggests that different ways of speaking will cause different perception of concepts. People’s infantile language experience plays an important role in shaping thought. This influence is long-lasting and deep-rooted. Most speakers tend to use a mother tongue’s thinking model when speaking a new language. If native-like proficiency is the goal, then adapting the thinking model to certain linguistic systems will be necessary. This goal is hard to reach for L2 speakers. Simultaneous bilinguals are more likely to achieve native-like expression since both languages play a role in shaping thought during the immature period.

7. Language and identity

After showing three benefits for simultaneous learning, I want to talk about a more profound advantage. This advantage suits people who live in place where the native language is different from popular language. Crystal points out language’s important role in culture: “Language… is not only an element of culture itself; it is the basis for all cultural activities” (Bloch and Trager 5). The statement reveals the close connection between language and culture, though possibly overestimating the influence language has on culture. For individuals, learning language is a process of absorbing culture. Dixon expresses a language as the emblem of its speakers (135). The word “emblem” may refer to identity: being a member of community. Shared language and unique culture connect people with community spiritually. Therefore, cultural identity and belongingness are closely related to language acquisition.

According to a study conducted by Dewaele, the majority of 1,459 participates from 77 different first language communities conveyed they perceived the strongest emotional weight when saying “I love you” in their mother tongue (Dewaele 1753-1780). Therefore, mother tongue is likely to have a more powerful impact on people’s emotional state of expression compared with a language people learn in later life. Simultaneous learning lets people who have to learn popular language for communication have a chance to make the native language a mother tongue. When these people learn a native language from birth, their cultural sense of belonging is likely to be enhanced.

8. Concluding remarks and practical implications

Children have their own way of separating different languages and constructing linguistic systems. Parents are suggested to create a friendly and free linguistic environment for bilingual children. Bilingual children need abundant messages to find out, verify and revise rules until these laws fit well with reality. They need to be exposed to an environment full of linguistic information-idiomatic expression. The present study suggests that nonnative input is much less helpful to language acquisition than native input. Parents’ nonnative speaking will not contribute to the progress of corresponding language but hinder another (Place, Silvia, and Erika Hoff 1847). Talking to children with language parents who are proficient may be a good choice. Also, parents may not need to teach children grammar or correct children’s mistakes on purpose. Too much intervention may be useless since children can explore linguistic rules and undergo well-ordered stages of revision until figuring out rules matched perfectly with reality.

In conclusion, children have an extraordinary ability to learn language. Bilinguals are able to achieve the goal of mastering two languages simultaneously by using excellent strategies. Moreover, simultaneous bilingual learning has various advantages compared with monolingual learning and sequential learning. The benefits contain language, but also transcend the limit of language itself, extending to the field of cognitive ability and culture. 



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